UCU versus the anti-union laws

By a Cambridge UCU member

The University and College Union (UCU) last week announced the results of two national ballots. Higher Education (HE) sector members were balloted on two disputes: the long-running “USS” pensions issue, and on the “Four Fights”: pay, workload, casualisation, and inequality. Pensions in HE have been systematically attacked over the past decade, so much so that the average USS member is now £240,000 worse off. On pay, HE has seen a 20% real-terms wage cut since 2010, whilst the gender pay gap sits at a staggering 16%. UCU research has consistently found our members averaging 50+ hour working weeks over the 2010s. Last month, UCU reported that one-third of all academics were employed on fixed-term contracts. Thousands of university teaching staff are on zero-hour contracts, and thousands more are in the same situation as me, having no contract at all.

It is therefore no surprise that UCU members voted in their tens of thousands to fight back. 37 branches balloted on the USS pensions dispute now have legal strike mandates, and so too do 54 branches balloted over the Four Fights issues. Given the overlap in which branches were balloted on just one or both of these disputes, there are now about 60 unique branches able to take strike action, and, due to larger branches having higher turnouts, this covers about 60% of our union’s near 130,000 members.

Although there is much to be said about the best tactics to win this dispute, here I want to focus on how anti-trade union legislation has held us back, and why nothing short of the complete repeal of all anti-union laws will be enough to build the fighting trade union we need.

Turnout Thresholds, Sector-wide Action

A well-known anti-union restriction introduced in David Cameron’s 2016 Trade Union (TU) Act is the 50%+ turnout threshold (with a majority in favour of strikes) required to take industrial action in England, Scotland and Wales. The aim of this act was to stop action on a national basis, arising mainly from the 2011/12 public sector strikes that saw nearly a million workers walk out, the most in the UK since 1989. Since the 2016 Act passed, the total number of annual strike days has only crossed the 100,000-mark on one occasion (and then only barely). Clearly the act is working as the Tories had hoped.

In comparison to similarly large (and larger) unions, the UCU has bucked the trend in beating this threshold nationally, doing so in 2017, 2019 and now again in 2021. Nevertheless, this has not allowed tens of thousands of our members to mobilise, instead either requiring them to re-ballot to join others involved in industrial action, or stopping them altogether. Our 2018 strike ballot was beaten outright when we voted on a nationally aggregated basis with a 41% turnout. To put that figure into context, there have been MPs elected to parliament on less than half of this turnout. The turnout threshold is a union-busting, anti-democratic tool that is holding workers back.

One of the ugly ironies of the turnout threshold is how members voting against strikes can result in actions being more likely. This year Manchester University UCU (MUCU) were balloted on both the USS pensions and Four Fights disputes. In the former the Yes/No vote for strike action saw votes split 807/231 on a 49.95% turnout, and the latter a split of 782/269 on a 50.4% turnout. Despite a higher fraction of support, MUCU cannot strike over pensions, being one vote short. Yet, in the Four Fights dispute the extra number of votes cast against strikes resulted in this passing the threshold. The turnout threshold is backwards.

UCU have however shown that national actions can be taken on a ‘disaggregated’ basis (that is branch-by-branch). Whilst this means we still have the power to be disruptive in cities and towns across the UK, less-organised branches have been unfairly left out of disputes which directly affect them. What this has proven though is that action breeds more action: our national turnouts have been increasing every time of asking over the past 4 years, and even more so in branches that have taken action in the past year (e.g., Manchester Met, Liverpool and the Royal College of Arts) or where these have been coupled with a local dispute (e.g. Goldsmiths).

In fact, our total turnout figures have increased so substantially that a debate has now emerged in the UCU following our 2021 ballot. Whilst around 1 in 3 branches beat the threshold individually, both disputes ended with total ballot turnouts of over 50%: had these been balloted together (on a union-wide aggregated basis), every single member in our 154 branches would now have a live strike mandate. This means that sector-wide action is potentially back on the table, and importantly at the dozens of universities that in recent years have been strangled by Cameron’s Act. This is a huge opportunity for them. Where UCU has had little history of building industrial action, our collective power can be used to ensure our members everywhere can take action and build their branches during active struggle. We may even see this tested very soon. If our 6-month strike mandate needs renewing in May – after a powerful first wave of action over Winter and Spring – UCU could win an aggregated strike mandate that encompasses every one of us.

Of course, just because we have shown that we can beat the threshold doesn’t mean we should have to. The exercise of balloting is itself exhausting, and as laid out above, is a rule set by those who want worker self-organisation and the trade union movement crushed. We need to outlaw turnout thresholds.

Workplace Voting, Branch Organising

Part of the difficulty of building turnout is the mechanism of voting; this cannot be done “in” the workplace, and now is entirely managed by postal ballots. Thatcher spent much of the 80s pushing these types of practices on unions for one major reason: it is atomising. Prior to private postal ballots, workers had the chance to meet, discuss, argue and debate strategies for disputes, and whether or not to strike. Atomised workers are less likely to vote, as in many instances aren’t as aware of issues presented to them in industrial disputes, or haven’t discussed this with colleagues. In short, this method has successfully detached union members from acting on their own disputes.

Workplace voting ensured members went to meetings, took part in branch debates and had a stake in building their union’s activist base. Whilst there remain strong reasons for attending union branch meetings, this has resulted for many in one reason less, and contributes to the feeling of powerlessness. Breaking the rules that restrict our right to hold workplace ballots won’t just ensure our members are better equipped with reasons why they might take industrial action, they will organically result in stronger grassroots union organisation too.

The reduction in the democratic power of union branches and members has naturally handed more power to union bureaucracies to set the terms of our disputes. Further, it has shifted branch focuses from developing effective workplace organisation, to instead building “Get out the vote” machinery. Such GOTV operations are very rarely an exercise in building workplace power, given the time-limited nature of ballot periods and the all-too-often yes/no membership canvassing approaches these adopt. In the UCU’s case, this helps to account for our recent uptick in ballot turnouts, however the atomising of members and how we vote has acted as a counter-balance to the kind of rank-and-file mobilising we need in our branches. We need a return to organising that centralises the workplace (irrespective of imposed industrial action balloting methods) that builds collective power at the union’s grassroots.

Solidarity Action, Industrial Unionism

The UCU is not the only union in Higher Education. Our members are predominantly teaching, research and academic-related professional services staff, with Unite, Unison, GMB, IWGB, and UVW representing members that cover everything else needed to run a university. Whilst academics are able to shut down university lectures, talks and research, cleaners, maintenance workers and technicians have the ability to shut down entire buildings, faculties and critical infrastructure (e.g., IT systems); clearly, significant power in Higher Education rests outside of the UCU. This is why building effective leverage in our sector makes cross-union action increasingly necessary.

However, since the Thatcher era, anti-union laws have banned solidarity action, restricting the other campus unions from legally joining the UCU dispute. Banning solidarity action has helped to erode class consciousness. It means that upcoming UCU strikes can only get limited support from workers organised in other trade unions. It has given union bureaucracies more power to discourage cross-union action that could see greater power leveraged at the grassroots.

There are ways to resist this. No laws stop joint union meetings, and joint organising committees, nothing stops us building leverage with workplace-wide actions “short of” striking (working to rule, work “slow-downs”, refusing to take-on certain jobs). Some of these are labour movement traditions applied successfully during the 70s and 80s. They need bringing back now.

Where cross-union coordination is not yet happening, organising on a sector (or “industrial”) basis will build far greater power than unions only organising their own members. If we all have the same boss and management, and we’re fighting off the same types of attack, it is only logical that we coordinate joint union action in response. Indeed, cross-union campus organising will be essential to maximise disruption during the UCU strikes, and build necessary industrial links for the immediate and long-term future.

There is more to say about the necessity for an industrial union for all higher education workers – the alignment of all workers into one union representing anyone working in our sector – but I’ll call that beyond the scope of this article. Certainly, in the near-term linking the UCU’s disputes and demands with other Higher Education unions will ultimately help all of us win and plant the seeds from which such a realignment can grow.

For an effective right to strike and organise: abolish every anti-union law

Universities are now increasingly becoming some of the largest employers in many cities and towns across the UK. Coupled with the recent increases in union activism within HE, universities present an immense terrain to wage class struggle on the scale needed to systematically roll back all the anti-union laws. Any successful fight to repeal these will involve the UCU and people who work on university campuses.

However, our union is only formally opposed to the 2016 TU Act. Welcome as its abolition would be, this is far from sufficient for us to rebuild the labour movement and give workers across the UK a rejuvenated and effective right to strike and organise.

UCU activists should mobilise for our next Congress to extend our union’s position to oppose and campaign to end all anti-union laws. Anything less is less than we deserve.

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